Are Fatty Foods Like Heroin and Cocaine?

Health Writer

Drugs like heroin and cocaine affect the pleasure centers in the brain, causing a drug user over time to want that feeling more often, and to need more of the drug in order to achieve the same “high.” Research seems to suggest that some foods, especially certain fatty foods, increase the likelihood of strong food cravings and addiction.

Back in 2010, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) was already investigating the possibility that foods can be addictive, and the concept of addictive foods has been trending for several years. Certainly, there is a distinction between food lust and food need and very deep-rooted overwhelming cravings for certain foods. There is a list of highly addictive foods that’s been compiled by experts and it includes: pizza, chocolate, commercially prepared cookies, ice cream, French fries, cheeseburgers, sugary soda, cake, cheeses, bacon, fried chicken, bread and rolls, and popcorn. Most of these foods are highly processed, full of fat or sugar.

There is also a scale called the Yale Food Addiction Scale (YFAS) that scores a food’s addictive nature and how likely it is that you are attracted to a certain food or food ingredients, based on a series of questions. A number of noted experts were involved in creating these tools, recognizing that foods can be as addictive as drugs like cocaine and heroin. Doctors use this series of questions to determine if you have compulsive eating behavior and if you need psychological help (and possibly medication) in order to manage the disorder. Some of the questions include:

  • Do you eat even when you are full?
  • Do you go out of your way to enjoy certain foods (leave your house, for example, even when inconvenient) when the foods aren’t readily available at home?
  • Do you find yourself finishing off a full bag of cookies or chips when you had only decided to have a few?
  • Do you experience intense cravings?
  • Are there certain foods that make it harder for you to stop eating?
  • Does the choice to eat sometimes interfere with the choice to spend social time with family or friends?
  • Do you avoid certain events and gatherings because you fear you may overeat?
  • Does overeating restrict your lifestyle?

According to a study of rats, pleasure and reward are involved in the eating process. High fat, high caloric foods can overload the pleasure centers in our brains and disrupt the normal pathways associated with eating, pleasure, and satiation. Researchers noted that the results suggest these foods initiate this disruption and accelerate “the development of addiction-like neuro-adaptive responses in brain reward circuits,” instigating compulsive food seeking behaviors.

The researchers also concluded that this offered one pathway to obesity. So stated simply,** if you are attracted to high fat, high calorie foods, their very nature can lead to cravings for more and more, but it will also require bigger portions and greater frequency to provide the same level of pleasure that the original portions provided.**

If you do struggle with serious food cravings, there is help. Mindfulness-based interventions have been documented as one way to deal with strong cravings. Guided imagery and body scanning have also been shown to be effective in helping certain individuals. A report published in Psychological Sciencesuggests that kids tend to have stronger food cravings than teens or adults, once they are introduced to high fat, high sugar foods, but they also respond well to cognitive strategies that reduce cravings. But it’s better, of course, for parents to strictly limit exposures to saturated fat, refined sugars, highly caloric beverages, and processed foods so children are less likely to develop these strong cravings due to repeated exposures.

It’s important to know that eating when you’re not hungry can have serious health implications. Having cravings can also result in food binges and significant weight gain. Turning to foods that predominantly use artificial sweeteners may still result in sugar cravings, according to research. Setting up a home and work environment that is less tempting can help you to manage cravings.

In addition to getting help from professionals, there are also smart swap outs for saturated fat and refined sugars, the very ingredients that keep you stuck in this hedonistic cycle of cravings. Following basic dietary guidelines to avoid cravings can be quite complicated, so as you navigate the food aisles of your local supermarket it’s important to understand how to decipher food labelsand recognize crave-inducing foods. Many of the “fruit snacks” you feed your kids are actually full of sugars. Eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables can help to keep one’s palate accustomed to the sweetness and tartness of these good-for-you foods.

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Amy Hendel, also known as The HealthGal, is a Physician Assistant, nutritionist and fitness expert. As a health media personality, she's been reporting and blogging on lifestyle issues and health news for over 20 years. Author of The 4 Habits of Healthy Families, her website offers daily health reports, links to her blogs, and a library of lifestyle video segments.